Steve Slagle – Evensong (2013)

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Every time I’ve surveyed a Steve Slagle record, it’s always been in the context of the Stryker/Slagle Band. This ace alto and soprano saxophonist’s latest project Evensong is under his own name, but the equally proficient guitarist Dave Stryker is all over this identically-structured sax/guitar/bass/drums quartet, too, which makes me wonder why couldn’t this be considered a Stryker/Slagle record, like those other records.

The thing that’s far more important than names is the quality of the music, and Evensong is the same kind of meat-and-potatoes post-bop readily found on recordings by the co-lead combo, with most of the blues-based fare contributed by Slagle and a couple by Stryker. The reason I keep coming back to these guys is the freshness, enthusiasm and agility they bring to music that’s steadfastly traditional.

Slagle devises songs inspired by his heroes without outright imitating them, the more obvious examples being “Equal Nox” (John Coltrane) and “Mingus In Us,” where Slagle’s vision of the blues is shot through the prism of each of these jazz icons.

Other blues interpretations come on “Blues Four,” which starts on the “Four” chord instead of on the “One,” and Stryker’s smokin’ “Shadowboxing.” As he does for “Shadowboxing, Slagle plays soprano sax on “Quiet Folks,” but performs it in such an unusually graceful way for this tasteful, downtempo tune. Elsewhere, Slagle applies a little bit of Joe Henderson’s sweet ‘n’ sour “inside/outside” principles on “Blues Four” and the Brazilian influenced “Supermoon.”

Stryker once again proves to be the perfect partner for Slagle, and it becomes apparent from the opening “Mingus” that the two engage each other in different ways through a song, but always doing the exact thing at the right time. “Shadowboxing” has particularly good back-and-forth improvising between the two. When Stryker solos on his own, it’s usually in the jazz mode in the style of Burrell and Montgomery, such as what’s heard on “Blues Four,” or the righteous, note bending blues lines he plays on “Alive.” The rhythm section of Ed Howard (bass), McClenty Hunter (drums) are asked to provide an underlying slab of spark, and that’s just what they do from one track to the next.

The one song Howard and Hunter sit out on is the last one, Ellington and Strayhorn’s “The Star Crossed Lovers.” with only Stryker providing accompaniment, Slagle assumes possession of the song with passionate tones and timbres that lets his genuine affection for the classic shine through.

Yep, Steve Slagle, Dave Stryker and the rest had no other intentions other than to make a straight-ahead jazz record, but whether it’s the Stryker/Slagle Band or Slagle with Stryker, the resulting music is the same, top-tier execution that draws me in and reminds me of why I fell in love with jazz in the first place.

Evensong will be released on February 5, by Panorama Records. Visit Steve Slagle’s website for more info.

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